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Memphis’s New Hustle, and the Five Most Interesting Teams in the NBA

Plus: an early status report on Boogie Cousins, the Trail Blazers face another crossroads at the trade deadline, and more intrigue from around the league

Mike Conley, Damian Lillard, DeMarcus Cousins, Blake Griffin, and Giannis Antetokounmpo Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Now that we know which 10 players will start the 2019 NBA All-Star Game, we can turn our attention to assessing the fallout as we wait for the trades to start.

Who’s going to be the first to tweet a salty “Lol” mere seconds after the reserves are announced next week? Is it going to be Devin Booker? It’s got to be Devin Booker, right? Unless it’s D’Angelo Russell. Or Andre Drummond. Or Jamal Murray! The options for thinking-face-emoji Instagram stories are endless!

While we wait for #SnubSZN, let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams in the league for Week 15, starting with the end of an era on Beale Street …

Memphis Grizzlies

A horrendous 3-18 stretch has turned Memphis’s promising start to the season to ash, leading the Grizzlies to consider drastic measures. After Mike Conley and Marc Gasol met with owner Robert Pera to “discuss the direction of the franchise,” Memphis will “begin listening to trade offers” for its bookend linchpins. And while the Grizzlies might “not [be] committed to moving” Conley or Gasol before the February 7 trade deadline, it’s hard not to feel like this is the end, or close to it.

So as we raise our glasses to a fun, lovable, memorable team that was beautiful, in its way, we also look toward what’s next. I wrote last week that I don’t expect suitors to give up much for Gasol, who turns 34 next week and whose play has cratered since a late-November ankle sprain. But what about Conley?

The 31-year-old has missed just one game in his first season after left heel surgery, averaging 20 points, six assists, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.3 steals in 33.6 minutes per game. He’s shooting 37.5 percent from 3-point range on six attempts a night since a frigid 15-game start to the campaign. He has also been more accurate on catch-and-shoot triples than pulling up off the dribble this season, suggesting that Memphis’s primary playmaker for a decade could also be effective as an off-ball option alongside another ball handler.

Conley is a sure-handed lead guard, on pace to become the first player in 16 seasons to use at least a quarter of his team’s offensive possessions, dish assists on more than 30 percent of them, and turn the ball over on less than 10 percent of them. He’s not as slithery a screen-evader as he once was, but he’s still a smart and opportunistic defender who rarely gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar; his foul rate ranks in the 85th percentile among point men this season, according to Cleaning the Glass. Conley can get into the paint for floaters, run your offense, and spot up alongside another playmaker while handling himself on the other end and not screwing things up. He is a very good point guard who would represent an upgrade for a lot of teams.

He’s also incredibly expensive. Conley is making $30.5 million this season, in the third year of what was, at the time it was struck, the richest deal in NBA history. He’s owed $32.5 million for next season, and holds a $34.5 million early-termination option for 2020-21, so any team interested in acquiring him—likely one either trying to make the playoffs or load up for a deeper run in them—has to get straight with adding a cool $67 million to its books over the next two seasons while also offering the Grizzlies something of value.

If Memphis wants young players to pair with rookie Jaren Jackson Jr., maybe it’ll look to Dallas, for something built around expiring contracts and on-the-outs second-year point guard Dennis Smith Jr., or the perennially point-guard-starved Magic, targeting the intriguing Aaron Gordon. If the Grizz are looking to build up a draft war chest, they could eye Detroit—desperate for more playmaking alongside Blake Griffin—who’d likely have to toss in multiple future first-rounders to sweeten the contracts of Reggie Jackson and ex-Grizzly Jon Leuer (whom I once nicknamed “Tennessee Dirk”).

A potential fit with Indiana likely went off the table with the loss of Victor Oladipo, but the Grizzlies could see whether Utah would be intrigued enough by the idea of locking in a Conley–Donovan Mitchell–Joe Ingles playmaking trio to come off Ricky Rubio’s expiring contract and Derrick Favors’s non-guaranteed 2019-20 deal. Or maybe gauge Philly’s interest in a swap for the expiring deals of Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala, a future draft pick, and the mystery box to end all mystery boxes: former no. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz. There are deals that could work, depending on what Memphis’s decision-makers (whoever they are) want most.

We still might not see any All-Stars moved before the deadline. But the best active player who’s never appeared in the exhibition could make for a damn good consolation prize.

The Most Interesting All-Star Take No One Asked For

We break from the bit for this important decree: There should be trades in the All-Star Game.

For the second straight year, we have captains responsible for drafting teams, an incidental exhibition-game metacommentary on how individual players exerting more influence on who they want to play with has reshaped the league. One thing we’ve learned from years of attempted superteam construction, though: It doesn’t always work out. Sometimes players’ games don’t mesh the way you’d envisioned. Sometimes personalities don’t click. Sometimes someone repeatedly curses out someone else because he won’t stop taking one-year deals and holding it over everyone’s heads that he might leave. (I’m speaking strictly in hypotheticals here, of course.)

Well, what if Giannis Antetokounmpo realizes early in the second quarter of next month’s All-Star Game that his Only Big Dudes draft strategy has left him susceptible to dribble penetration? Or, perhaps, that he has inadvertently built a roster consisting of Joel Embiid and a whole mess of guys who kind of can’t stand Joel Embiid? Why shouldn’t he get the chance to correct that error and reform his roster, provided he can come up with a package enticing enough to convince LeBron James to part with, say, Kyrie Irving? (Though LeBron might be a little less willing to make that deal now than he would’ve been a couple of weeks ago.)

Make two sets of jerseys for everybody, just in case, and give captains the option to make up to two trades at any point before the end of the third quarter. I want to see intrigue: Wait, why would LeBron trade for Kevin Durant instead of Anthony Davis? WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE LAKERS??? I want to see something heartwarming, like Kyle Lowry petitioning for a trade so he can suit up alongside DeMar DeRozan one more time. I want to see something sinister, like Giannis sending Jimmy Butler to the other locker room in a tactical effort to destroy Team LeBron from the inside.

The whole thing’s a spectacle until the last few minutes anyway, right? So let’s make it spectacularly weird. There should be trades in the All-Star Game. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers enter the trade deadline in a more enviable position than a lot of teams—comfortably above .500, without any significant injuries, and with a line on a top-four seed in the Western Conference. But they also find themselves in the same uncomfortable spot they’ve occupied for the past couple of years: trying to figure out how to progress past “pretty good.”

The wide-angle view of the season offers a lot to like. A strong start gave way to a late-November swoon, but Portland has bounced back to win 10 of its past 15 and has the NBA’s third-best net rating since Christmas. CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic have hit their strides after early-season stumbles, joining superstar Damian Lillard and stalwart forward Al-Farouq Aminu in one of the league’s most effective quartets. Athletic swingman Jake Layman has been a dynamite fifth since his return to the rotation; when he runs with the four starters, Portland has outscored opponents by 65 points in 115 minutes since Christmas.

But Portland might be something of a flat-track bully. The Blazers have fattened up during their recent run with wins over the 76ers without Joel Embiid, Rockets without Chris Paul and Eric Gordon, Knicks, Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, and Suns. They’re 14-15 against teams with records of .500 or better, and half of those wins came in the first month of the season. More recently, they’ve split pairs with Utah, Golden State, and Sacramento, and lost two straight to the Thunder, whose point guard evidently had a message he wanted to share with Portland’s in the closing seconds Tuesday:

With a remaining schedule that ranks right around the middle of the pack in difficulty and a little luck, the Blazers could top the 50-win mark for the first time since LaMarcus Aldridge left town. But in a brutally crowded West, where the top teams tend to—if I may borrow Russ’s colorful phrasing—“bust that ass” if you don’t have the talent to match up, how far can this iteration of Portland go? And if Blazers brass don’t like the answer, will they finally take a swing with the kind of risk/reward move that breaks up the chemistry of a pretty good team in pursuit of something greater?

These questions figure to stay at the front of the mind of Blazers general manager Neil Olshey over the next two weeks. And they’re ones that Lillard, Portland’s lone All-NBA-caliber cornerstone, has clearly been asking himself too.

In an interview with Jason Quick of The Athletic, Lillard acknowledged how difficult it must be for Olshey to weigh maintaining a commitment to continuity against taking a chance at competing for championships. It sounds like, barring a no-brainer deal that would bring back a top-15-type talent, Dame would lean toward keeping what’s already in house.

“When you talk about a championship level, it’s tough to compete with those ultra-talented teams—Golden State, Oklahoma City, teams that just have player after player after player,” he said. “So you don’t want to go into the trade deadline just doing stuff to do it, [and] then you break up something that was working for you. So I think you are almost better off taking your chances with, ‘Let’s see if togetherness is going to beat the talent at some point.’”

It’s just the kind of thing that a leader of Lillard’s stature should say. But as noble as it is for Lillard to say, “I want to win a championship for this city, but I’m not willing to put somebody under the bus to do it,” you wonder whether the bigger takeaway will be, “If we are ever going to sacrifice [chemistry], it would have to come with us being able to match a team with talent.” Lillard’s voice carries in Portland. The next couple of weeks could tell us a lot about which of his words rang out loudest.

The Most “Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying” Team of the Week: Detroit Pistons

I want to like the Pistons. I want to get invested in the Pistons. Why won’t you help me like and invest in you, Pistons?

I have all kinds of time for head coach Dwane Casey, who built something admirable in Toronto before everything broke, and for Blake Griffin, who has responded to the sucker punch of going from “Clipper for life” to “shipped to the ruins of a once-proud basketball empire” by ascending to what might be his final form. He’s one of only three players this season averaging at least 26 points, eight rebounds, and five assists per game—the other two are Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James, which is decent company—and he’s doing that while finishing a higher share of his team’s offensive possessions than ever and posting the highest true shooting percentage of his career. He’s been phenomenal, and a phenomenal watch. His team, on the other hand … well, if “woof” doesn’t cover it, “yikes” just might.

Andre Drummond has never shot more, or worse, and his double-doubles too often feel about as essential to his team’s health as cotton candy. An impoverished wing rotation relies far too much on Reggie Bullock (who is pretty good), Luke Kennard (who might be, if Casey would let him cook), and Stanley Johnson (who, it increasingly appears, is not). I have yet to see incontrovertible proof that 2016 first-round pick Henry Ellenson—taken ahead of Caris LeVert, Pascal Siakam, Dejounte Murray, and Malcolm Brogdon, among others—actually exists. And Reggie Jackson? Well, let’s just say it seems fitting that his most memorable moments to date in Detroit came in an oblivious videobomb just as Griffin was lamenting the Pistons’ ongoing struggle to maintain focus, intensity, and execution late in games:

The Pistons might make the playoffs anyway, with the bottom of the East as shaky as ever, but this team seems nearly catatonic. It’s typically not smart to make trades solely to shake things up, but in Detroit’s case, it might be worth it. Swing for Conley, Gasol, or both. Take somebody else’s underperforming wing in exchange for Johnson. Try something, because just hanging around and hoping Griffin can carry a roster larded with dead weight to 38 wins and a first-round exit is getting sad.

Golden State Warriors

The most encouraging thing about the dawning of the DeMarcus Cousins era isn’t that it began with annihilations of both L.A. teams or that the vibe surrounding what some speculated might be a thorny integration has thus far appeared remarkably chill. It’s that the 28-year-old All-Star, rusty though he may be after nearly a year on the shelf following surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon, has slotted just about seamlessly into Golden State’s system. Even in the early going, the fit looks to be as good as the Warriors hoped and the rest of the NBA feared.

The Warriors outscored the Clippers, Lakers, and Wizards by 37 points in Cousins’s 61 minutes of play, including a tidy plus-34 mark in 32 minutes of work for Golden State’s new “broke the league” lineup of Boogie, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson. But whether he’s sharing the floor with Golden State’s galaxy of stars or playing in second-unit groups, Cousins has looked comfortable fitting in where he’s needed rather than having to assert himself as a focal point.

Cousins has already started developing two-man-game chemistry with the scorching Thompson (his favorite Warrior, lest we forget). The marriage of Thompson’s constant off-ball motion and hiccup-quick release with Cousins’s brick-wall screening and keen passing vision—and the attention both star players demand from defenders—is already creating confusion among defenses and a bevy of good looks for both:

With the exception of Kevin Durant isolations, when the Warriors work in the post, it’s typically in service of finding high-percentage shots for cutters off the weak side. As expected, Cousins has been a hand-in-glove fit in that capacity, registering 11 assists against four turnovers while working largely from the high and low posts:

It hasn’t been a flawless transition. Cousins is 10-for-21 inside the paint so far, struggling a bit to both finish through contests on the interior and find the range on short runners and floaters over defenders he can’t yet blow past. He’s also had a hard time moving laterally on defense, which has led to him reaching to stop opponents, which led to 10 personal fouls in his first 36 minutes of floor time. (He picked up only two in 24-plus minutes of Thursday’s win over Washington, but he definitely looked to be laboring at times when moving side-to-side or trying to get up a head of steam.)

Those issues suggest that Cousins is still relocating his burst in tight spaces—an area to monitor, especially in the playoffs, when opponents downsize to the sort of quicker lineups that might threaten to play Cousins off the floor. But Boogie has already allayed concerns that he might suffer from a debilitating lack of mobility by showing he can get out and run the floor in transition and that he can still be explosive rolling to the rim:

It’s a good bet that the touch and fluidity of movement will come. The comfort level, though—the thing that allows a 6-foot-11, 270-pound kraken fresh off a resurrection to just start faking cuts and popping behind screens back to the 3-point line like he’s Kyle friggin’ Korver? That’s already there. That seems like very good news for the Warriors and very, very bad news for everybody else.